WASHINGTON — The Obama White House has begun advancing an aggressive political strategy: persuading the country that real power behind the Republican Party is not the GOP leaders in Congress or at the Republican National Committee, but rather provocative radio talk show king Rush Limbaugh.
President Obama himself, along with top aides and outside Democratic allies, have been pushing the message in unison.
At a news briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked to react to Limbaugh's speech over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Limbaugh was characteristically critical of Obama.
"So what is so strange about being honest to say that I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation?" Limbaugh said. "Why would I want that to succeed?"
Gibbs was prepared for the question.
"I think it would be charitable to say he doubled down on what he said in January in wishing and hoping for economic failure in this country," Gibbs said.
At a private meeting in January, the president told Republican lawmakers they needed to tune out Limbaugh if they wanted to get things done.
A president's stature is such that anything he makes a focus is immediately elevated. Would Obama be better off ignoring an influential critic with an audience that numbers in the millions? Asked about that Monday, Gibbs stood his ground.
He called Limbaugh "a national spokesperson for conservative views and many in the Republican Party. . . ."
"You know," Gibbs said, "I think he elevated himself. He's got, I understand, a fairly popular show."
As the White House works to make Limbaugh the face of the GOP, it is getting some outside assistance.
A tax-exempt group that supports progressive causes -- Americans United for Change -- is helping finance a TV ad that claims Republican leaders are beholden to the radio host. The ad closes with Limbaugh saying, "I want him to fail."
The quote was part of a comment in which Limbaugh said of Obama: "If his agenda is a far-left collectivism -- some people say socialism -- as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?"
Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, said the group had discussed the ad campaign with the Democratic National Committee. Woodhouse is joining the DNC next week as its communications director. Asked if the White House was notified about the ad, Woodhouse said: "They certainly are aware -- I'm sure they're aware of what we're doing."
Within the GOP officialdom, Limbaugh is a sensitive subject. The new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, said on CNN over the weekend that Limbaugh was merely an "entertainer" -- and an "incendiary" one at that. He also disputed the notion that Limbaugh was leading the GOP.
Limbaugh fired back on his show: "Now, Mr. Steele, if it is your position as the chairman of the Republican National Committee that you want a left-wing Democrat president and a left-wing Democrat Congress to succeed in advancing their agenda, if it's your position that you want President Obama and Speaker Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid to succeed with their massive spending and taxing and nationalization plans, I think you have some explaining to do. Why are you running the Republican Party?"
Steele later called Limbaugh to apologize, Politico reported. Steele released a statement: "I respect Rush Limbaugh. He is a national conservative leader, and in no way do I want to diminish his voice. I'm sure that he and I will agree most of the time, but will probably disagree some as well, which is fine."
In an interview Monday, David Axelrod, senior advisor to Obama, pressed the argument that the real GOP boss is Limbaugh: "I don't see most of these Republican office holders heeling for Mr. Steele like they do for Limbaugh."